Before I started reading Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (aka The Girls),
I had heard it was a fairy tale retelling set in New York City in the
late 1920s. I was not, however, familiar with the original tale of the
dancing princesses, which was collected by the Grimm brothers and was
known throughout Europe and as far east as India.
Fortunately, my ignorance of the source text did not detract from my enjoyment of this Jazz Age story of twelve sisters who are kept under the thumb of their strict father.
Here are my thoughts in a bullet review.
- What's it all about? The twelve Hamilton sisters (including two sets of twins) are kept hidden at home. Their mother died shortly after the last girl's birth, and their father never sees them. In fact, many of the younger girls have never met him. The girls are only very rarely allowed out of the house and are never seen without an escort or in groups of more than two. When the eldest sister, Jo, discovers dancing, their lives change. For eight years, the sisters--first only the oldest four but later all of them--sneak out of the house at midnight to visit speakeasies, where they dance so much their shoes wear out. They never tell anyone their names, and they are known simply as the princesses. When their father begins to suspect their disobedience, the girls must find a way to escape his power and cruelty.
- What I liked: Valentine weaves a tale that entangled me incrementally, hooking me before I realized it. The story focuses on Jo and the way she protects and cares for her sisters while managing to give them a taste of life outside their house. I liked several of the sisters, but it's clever, careful, self-sacrificing Jo who won me over. Valentine creates a fairy tale feeling as the girls navigate their way through the smoky Prohibition clubs, with their unrelenting music, scandalous dances, and shady men.
- Two aspects didn't quite work for me: (1) We are told that the girls fear their father and are even given a couple of examples of his coldness. Unfortunately, he never seemed real enough to me that I was able to relate to the sisters' terror. (2) The end of The Girls felt as if it had been hastily put together to create the expected happily ever after. This is a point I'd love to talk about with someone who has read the novel; if I say more, I'm afraid I'll spoil the story.
- Genre and themes: As I mentioned The Girls is a fairy tale retelling as well as historical fiction. The major themes are sisterhood, the meaning of freedom and free choice, sacrifice, parenthood, independence, and love.
- General recommendation: Despite the novel's flaws, I liked Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club enough to read it all in one sitting. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as good escape reading. Let's face it, fairy tales aren't meant to be subjected to deep analysis, so perhaps I'm being too picky about the ending. I also recommend the novel as a book club selection; some of the characters and situations would be good fodder for discussion.
Source: Review (see review policy)
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